Facts and Symbols

“Vatican Refuses to Go Gluten Free at Communion” -N.Y. Times, July 10, 2017 “Of course the Catholic Church won’t go gluten free with the Body of Christ, because He is Risen!” -Stephen Colbert

While I don’t fully understand Colbert’s humor (the Roman Catholic church uses unleavened bread for communion), I get his point: Isn’t it a little inhospitable to insist there is only one kind of bread/way to offer communion?

To be fair, the official ruling by the Vatican makes every attempt to accommodate parishioners who suffer from celiac disease, a gastrointestinal immune disorder that causes stomach pain, diarrhea and can lead to more serious complications.

But to insist that the bread used for communion HAS to have gluten begs what I think is an important question. What do Christians (yes, Roman Catholics are Christian even though many would describe themselves as Catholic as opposed to those of us who say they are Christian) believe they are doing when they take part in the Lord’s Supper?

There are other names for the sacrament. Eucharist, the earliest name for it, which simply means thanksgiving. Holy Communion. The Breaking of the Bread as it is often referred to in Scripture. It is one of two sacraments that are generally accepted as such by the universal Christian faithful, the other being baptism.

But why insist on gluten? Gluten, glue in Latin, is a general name for proteins found in various grasses. It literally provides the glue that holds the dough together, helps it rise and lends a certain “chew” to the bread.

Ok. Enough of the gluten already.

The major difference between Roman Catholic and Protestant Christians is how they define and perceive happens when they participate in the Lord’s Supper/Eucharist. The theological term is transubstantiation. It is the conversion of the substance of the communion elements into the body and blood of Jesus, only the appearance of bread and wine remaining.

It looks like bread and wine, but it is, in fact the body and blood of Jesus. That’s the Roman Catholic definition. Most Protestants would say the elements are symbolic of the presence of Jesus at communion.

Facts and symbols. This takes me back to my original question, “What do we think we are doing when we receive communion?” Are we consuming the actual body and blood of Jesus? Or are we, in a highly symbolic way, participating in the life (and by extension the death and resurrection) of Jesus? And, for that matter, does it matter how we answer?

The New Testament doesn’t help us here. Much of the writing about the Lord’s Supper implies people came together either daily (Acts) or weekly (1 Corinthians) and broke bread together as part of a regular mealtime.

Here is what matters to me. If, in insisting that the bread and wine is the actual body and blood of Jesus, then we run the risk of turning the bread and wine into things that need to be protected. Jesus becomes a commodity.

And if we see communion as symbolic to the point that the symbols no longer have the power to transform lives, then they are really no longer symbolic. The just become Sunday habits.

When I preside at communion, and I say the words of Jesus, “This is my Body broken for you, this is my Blood poured out for you,” I add, “Whenever you do this, I will be present with you.” Ultimately we Christians are supposed to be engaged, not in theological arguments, but in a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Fact or symbol? Jesus is present either way. That’s what really matters. The real question is, are we present?

Be what you see. Receive who you are.